What makes a Senior Developer

Every so often, someone asks me what I need to see in a senior developer. Why people ask me this is a mystery. I mean, besides the fact that I’m a Know-It-All, could it really be that several years of being a manager have really allowed me to delve into the core of the human psyche, separate the hard skills from the soft, and know what it really means to be “that” person?

Yeah, I’m having a good laugh at this one, too! But since I am a Know-It-All, and someone asks, it’s really hard for me to say “I don’t know”. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have an opinion on it or something…

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Evolution of the Know-It-All

Know It All Curve

I’m a Know-It-All. (Most of you know that.) I freely admit this because a) it sometimes gets me into trouble, and b) it’s something I need to try and control.  It’s the need for control that brings me to self-reflection, to look back on the things I do (or have done) and the things I say (or have said). Were they, in fact, factual? Were they right? Was I wrong? Who was right, and could I have approached the situation differently?

You may be wondering: “Why ask those questions? Isn’t that obvious?” Therein lies the ultimate pit-trap of the Know-It-All — the question isn’t obvious, only the answer. And the answer is what a burgeoning Know-It-All will readily offer up to anyone within earshot, regardless of whether or the Know-It-All was asked or even if there was a question to begin with. It doesn’t matter if they’re actually right — it’s the urge to be right that drives them…

…and often drives everyone else around them crazy.

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The blinding effect of an ego

One of the most dangerous things for anyone to have is an unchecked ego. I say “dangerous” because egos lead to a significant number of problems between team members, and can even lead to teams being pitted against other teams for no good reason.

I’ve seen ego problems not only as a manager, but also in myself — so I know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen all sides of egos, from the underappreciated, to the benign and humble, to the offensive. And yes, dear readers, all of them require some form of attention. Not because they’re all necessarily bad — some of them can be considered good traits — but because all of them need some form of nurturing.

All developers have an ego. (I’m focusing on developers because that’s who I manage. Egos exist in other disciplines, too, but my ego isn’t so big to think I can lump everyone into the same bucket.) Those egos express themselves in different ways. Some can produce outstanding work, but downplay their involvement. Others use their experience to educate.  And there are those who choose to oppress.

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I’m just a “passionate” guy

I didn’t mean to hurt you,
I’m sorry that I mad you cry,
I didn’t want to hurt you,
I’m just an “passionate” guy.
– With apologies to John Lennon

I won’t lie. Things haven’t been easy here in Costa Rica. This is, without question, the hardest job I’ve ever had. (And although I’m sure it’s very naive of me to say this, I hope it remains the hardest.) I’ve had to learn a lot to be able to work well here, not just within the cultural dimensions, but in particular the steps you take to start up a company on your own.

It’s not been easy. And it’s been showing. I’ve shown my frustration, my temper,  and my intolerance. I haven’t shown nearly enough compassion, understanding, or patience.

And it’s been noticed.

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Misconceptions on learning Spanish

I remember when I was back in university. As part of my English degree, I was told that I had to take two languages. Literally, different languages, not just something that was culturally different (a couple of friends not in English got away with courses about the French language’s cultural impact, rather than having to learn French, for example).

At the time, I signed up for French. I figured I already knew enough that I could ace the course and not worry about it. The other language was harder. My advisor suggested Latin, mostly because the one instructor he said I should have had a simple rule: ace all the weekly tests, you get 100% and you don’t have to take the final. I liked that plan.

Sadly, the plan didn’t work exactly as planned. The French teacher was an absolute bitch.

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Happy 40th Anniversary Star Trek

Space. The Final Frontier.

Forty years ago today, a little under six years before I was born, Star Trek took to the air for it’s original three-year run before being cancelled. It would spawn off an animated series, comic book series, toys, four spin-off television series, 10 movies, and more parodies than you could shake a tribble at.

I honestly don’t know the first time I watched Star Trek in any form, though I’m relatively sure it was TOS (The Original Series). I know I was an addict for the entire run of TNG (The Next Generation). From there, I progressed to DS9 (Deep Space 9), Voyager, and finally the too-short-lived Enterprise series. Following TNG, my addition tempered and waned, especially as many of the episodes seemed to have lacklustre writing and stints of not-so-great acting. (Yes, it can be argued that none of the series had great acting as a whole. Particularly when it comes to asking what … have you done … with … Spock’s brain?!)

“Trekkie.” The word evokes four possible responses: Laughter, ignorance, revulsion, acceptance. Some know what a trekkie is and merely laugh at the idea. There are those who have no idea what a trekkie is. There are those who do know and thoroughly object to being considered a “trekkie”, staunchly preferring “trekker”. And there are those who like the idea (and the connotations) that come with the epithet.

I was a trekkie. (Note the past-tense.) I considered those who wanted to be called “trekkers” to be far too pretentious for their own good. I was all for the campiness, the humour, the perceived silliness that comes out. I went to Star Trek conventions (two, to be exact — one in Toronto and another in Buffalo). I had the pins, knew most of the characters, all the TNG episodes, could recite most of The Wrath of Khan by heart. And I wasn’t ashamed about it, either.

Somewhere along the line — once I’d graduated university, it seems — I’d began a long, slow decline in my trekkiness. Today, I’d consider myself having turned my card back, no longer allowed to consider myself one amongst the crowd. “Reformed”, “ex”, “former” — pick a euphimism. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Star Trek in its various forms (although Voyager’s “reset button” habit still ticks me off), I just don’t devote a significant portion of my brain to it anymore. I’ve got a variety of other things to cram in there.

Like generally useless trivia. It’s part of being a know-it-all.

But you have to give Star Trek something. Despite all the wacky behaviour with fanatics, the show has done a surprising amount of good. Well, maybe “good” is subjective. It breathed life into the entire nearly-dead science fiction genre and gave rise to Star Wars, among other things. It also kindled new interest in science itself, creating several generations of scientists, physicists, explorers, and astronomers.

The creator is gone. Gene Roddenbury died when I was in university. DeForrest “Bones” Kelly followed a few years later. James “Scotty” Doohan passed into the final frontier last year. Forty years takes its toll. They may be gone, but the legacy will live on. Maybe even to the 23rd century.

Live long, and prosper.

On being a Know-it-all

I am a know-it-all. Both in the best and worst senses.

I became one as a kid. When all of my friends were reading Hardy Boys or Lord of the Rings, I was reading through Time Life books, learning how the universe worked — from the formation of suns right down to the reproductive systems in humans.

That was Mom’s doing, actually. She knew two things of my behaviour. First, that I read a lot. If we’d had the Encyclopedia Britannica, I would have read the whole thing, cover to cover. It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t, actually. The other thing was that I was nosey. I knew most of Mom’s good hiding spots for presents. (I’m sure Mom had a few others that I hadn’t even considered.) That was how Mom managed to sneak in a book that she was sure I would read.

The human body made up as robots, all geared to explain sexual reproduction to kids. Sounds like a weird concept. The first time that I read the book, it didn’t sink in. Something just didn’t make sense. When I reread the book a few months later (Mom had since then removed the book from the “hiding” place to the bookshelf), it stuck. It didn’t fit with my world view at the time, so required some additional processing.

My appetite for information, however, didn’t waiver. Mom got me another set of books — Time Life again — on Planet Earth. This covered pretty much every angle of Earth’s formation, behaviour, the things that make it up, and the things that live on it. Given that it’s Time Life, it’s not super-detailed, but it allowed me to get a decent grasp on plate tectonics.

In Grade Eight.

My English teacher believed that my parents had written the report rather than myself. At the time, I hadn’t understood the accusation, but would later realize what she was getting at.

Jeopardy bored me. My family had a habit of watching Wheel of Fortune (which I couldn’t stand, then or now) and Jeopardy over dinner. If I didn’t “win” the episode, I often came darn close. The Teen and College editions were laughable.

In university, I made it a habit of taking a variety of courses — for interests’ sake. I went in for Computer Science, came out with an English degree, and took courses from nearly every faculty along the way. Some because I needed courses other than my core ones, but others because they looked interesting. And I learned a lot.

The internet has been my biggest provider, despite the risk of inaccurate (or completely false) information that is sometimes to be found there. The Wikipedia is my latest obsession, and I regularly find myself consciously steering clear of it so I don’t become completely absorbed. That, combined with my 70 or so RSS feeds do a pretty decent job of filling my head full of often-useless crap.

And believe me, I keep it pretty full. It got so full that I eventually reached “informational mass”, the point at which a person is no longer able to keep this information bottled up and feels the urge to share it with everyone else. Often at annoying or poorly coordinated times. I became Cliff Claven.

Yes, my friends have called me that. To my face. In front of my family. Several times.

I can’t help it! I’m sure that psychiatry would be well-motivated to investigate this mental illness if they knew how many people are afflicted with know-it-all-ism. Just imagine how many people must require treatment for the sake of their sanity, their marriages, or even their jobs!

My job has been both a blessing and a curse for my know-it-all-ism. It requires me to know a lot to enable decision making, and affords me the chance to offer up information to help others. However, it means that I’ll frequently offer information that has nothing to do with the work at hand … such as the specific date the Romanov family was assassinated (16 July 1918) and that Anastasia didn’t survive as myth sometimes suggests.

One of my ex-project managers, Nancy, even called me on one of my factoids:

Geoff, do you actually know that, or do you just make yourself out to sound like you know?

I replied:

The best part is that you’ll never know for sure.

That’s the key to being a know-it-all: confidence. Doesn’t matter if you know something or not. You could be completely wrong about it. But you have to sound like you’re right, completely and without the possibility of fault. So long as someone is convinced that you know what you’re talking about (even if you’re way off), then you’re a trusted source.

Oh, and you have to speak your mind. Often out-of-turn. When no-one asked for it. That’s also a defining point of a know-it-all.

Take the case of A.J. Jacobs, for example. He dedicated himself to the task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica end-to-end under the guise of becoming the smartest person in the world. And then he wrote a book about the journey.

I mention this because I’m reading the book. I’m only up to P, but so far it’s been a great book. Especially for me since I really identify with A.J. Or should that be sympathize? Well, I suppose it works both ways. It’s a great read, though. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, mind you, since you need to be a bit of a know-it-all to fully appreciate its humour.

Even A.J., having read the Britannica, admits that you can’t know everything, and a lot of what you “know” depends on how well you can convince others. Take his brother-in-law, Eric, who tried to convince his own wife that a waitress serving them was not from a small town hear where his wife was raised, but in Eastern Europe. Needless to say, A.J. was quite pleased when Eric go trounced. And A.J. learned the secret of being a know-it-all.

I try to manage my dissemination of knowledge, but I know full well that I periodically still sound like Cliff. Without the accent, that is. Or the postal carrier outfit.

The Return of 36 Chambers of Shaolin

A little over two months ago, Dave “36” Chambers left Calgary for Toronto, where we were opening another office. On Friday, he came back to visit, and it was up to us to remind him why it was (or wasn’t) a bad idea to leave.

This was a weekend for travelling — many CMassers were moving about the country. Some were coming to Calgary, some were going to Toronto, but most (of the travellers) were going to Vancouver for a wedding. Shawn was Toronto-bound, conveniently about 45 minutes after Dave’s plane was to land. Making my trip completely useful, I took Shawn to the airport, he tagged off with Dave, and I took Dave back to our place.

For a game night of near-epic proportions.

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